L.A.'s First Immersive Theater Conference

No Proscenium's Noah Nelson addresses a breakout session at the Submersive Unconference
No Proscenium's Noah Nelson addresses a breakout session at the Submersive Unconference
Photo by Bill Raden

Can immersive theater help boost Los Angeles’ perennially struggling stage scene? That was one of the questions on the table at L.A.’s first conference for its fledgling interactive theater “industry,” held on Sept. 6.

Submersive: An Immersive Theater Unconference attracted around 30 participants drawn from traditional stage companies, new media producers and L.A.’s community of immersive theater enthusiasts. The co-presenters were Olya Petrakova and Bryan Brown of Hollywood’s Schkapf Theatre and Noah Nelson, “curator” of No Proscenium, a biweekly immersive theater listings newsletter.

If you’re not exactly certain what is meant by “immersive,” you are not alone. At least part of the afternoon’s agenda turned out to be merely agreeing on a definition for an emerging hybrid of technology, live performance and narrative that even its makers find difficult to pin down.

Schkapf's Bryan Brown and Chalk Rep's Larissa Kokernot and Amy Ellenberger
Schkapf's Bryan Brown and Chalk Rep's Larissa Kokernot and Amy Ellenberger
Photo by Bill Raden

“When someone says ‘immersive,’” Nelson offered, “generally I figure I’m going to be walking or somehow moving through the environment that they’ve created. If it’s ‘interactive,’ I expect [as an audience member] to have the ability to color the experience, I have a little bit of agency. If it’s site-specific, it just means you use the place for putting the show on, and I’m not going to walk into a 99-seat theater.”

In Los Angeles, he also noted, immersive usually means the seasonal plethora of horror attractions that spring up each year during October and November to scare the bejesus out of Halloween thrill seekers. One of the objectives of the conference is to make the immersive theater experience a year-round feature of L.A.’s performing arts landscape and put the city on the international immersive entertainment map.

That may be about to happen. The big buzz of the gathering was news that Hollywood producers Parkes/MacDonald Productions and global event producer Control Room had secured the old Red Car station under downtown’s Metro 417 apartments for the creation of a multi-million dollar theater experience by Felix Barrett of the British theater company Punchdrunk, the company responsible for New York’s runaway immersive/site-specific/interactive show Sleep No More.

It was Punchdrunk’s 2007 production of Masque of the Red Death at London’s Battersea Arts Centre building that launched the British craze for large-scaled immersive theater into the stratosphere. The opening of the still-running Sleep No More franchise in New York became a proof of concept for immersive’s audience-enchanting commercial viability in the states.

Mostly, the Submersive Unconference served as a meet-and-greet for L.A. small stage veterans all-too-accustomed to subsidizing their art by working non-theater day jobs. The meeting followed an open-agenda “unconference” format — a round of company introductions and presentations, several “breakout sessions” to discuss the participants’ professional hopes and concerns (not the least being whether there was a living to be made in the immersive arena) and a closing “next steps” session that amounted to a consensus for continuing the discussion at a more formal and larger conference next year.

Attendees included John Malpede and Henriëtte Brouwers of the venerable social-activist performance company Los Angeles Poverty Department; Larissa Kokernot and Amy Ellenberger of site-specific theater specialists Chalk Rep; Abel Horwitz of NoHo’s goth-shock show Urban Death at Zombie Joe’s Underground; Eric Gradman, co-founder of the techno-art house Two Bit Circus; Jamie Peterson of the experimental art-theater group Paper Industry; and David Mack of L.A.’s innovative avant-opera company the Industry.

The four-hour conference was, admits Nelson, a very tiny first step.

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“All these different groups are working a different line in this big space,” he reflected. “But they don’t necessarily know each other exists, so I keep trying to [create] a space for these divergent artists to come together and realize that there’s a larger identity, and they’re not doing it alone. … For the bootstrapping, DIY type of work that everyone in that room is capable of, there’s going to need to be a core audience of enthusiasts who are looking for new work. There’ll be more of them once there’s big work — the tent is going to get raised and people are going to look for the sideshow.”

For Petrakova, who recently attended the Western Arts Alliance Annual Conference in Seattle, the ambition was somewhat broader. She said that at the WAA conference, which brings together performing artists and agents and presenting theaters, she was stunned to realize that to the regional presenters shopping for festival-grade touring productions, L.A. barely registered on a radar that was focused almost exclusively on Europe, New York, Chicago and Austin.

Helping to correct that dismal showing, she hoped, might be the real significance of immersive theater to L.A.


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